Rhythm & Sound: w/the artists and the versions
Like writer Thomas Pynchon, Berlin producers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald notoriously maintain an invisible media profile by refusing to allow photos of themselves and direct quotations to be published. This self-effacing stance is, however, indirectly proportional to the degree of influence they've wielded over the past ten years, as their work has single-handedly transformed the electronic dub landscape since the early ‘90s. In addition to their landmark series Basic Channel, the other label projects with which they've been involved include M (Maurizio), Main Street, Chain Reaction, Rhythm and Sound, and Burial Mix. To therefore state that Ernestus and von Oswald have had a profound impact upon the evolution of electronic music styles and production methods over the past decade would be an absurd understatement. Basic Channel and Chain Reaction releases fashioned magnificent takes on Detroit-influenced Berlin techno heavily inflected with 70s reggae and dub elements that must now be considered seminal.
In recent years, Ernestus and von Oswald have shifted their focus to a purer invocation of reggae dub, one that overtly resuscitates a 1970s style but reanimates it by infusing it with modern electronic production techniques. In terms of CD releases, the 1998 Burial Mix album Showcase featured Tikiman's (Paul St. Hilaire) vocals, and was followed by 2001's Rhythm & Sound, a sublime collection of ten tracks highlighted by a single vocal cut, “Smile,” featuring Savage. Fans of those releases will be overjoyed by the joint release of Rhythm & Sound w/the artists and Rhythm & Sound the versions, with each offering eight stunning tracks of electronic reggae-dub. The hook here is that the first recording deploys the talents of seven different singers (Lloyd Barnes adopting The Chosen Brothers guise appears twice) while the second presents the same set of songs as dubbier instrumentals with only ghostly echoes of the vocals retained. As in the past, Rhythm & Sound w/the artists compiles tracks released on vinyl over the past three years and recorded in New York, Berlin, and Jamaica. It features Paul St. Hilaire again, but now joined by reggae legends like Cornel Campbell, Shalom, The Chosen Brothers, Love Joy, Jennifer Lara, and Jah Batta.
Typically, huge textural waves of hiss envelop and surge amongst the tracks' elongated, supple grooves. Classic echo and dub treatments infuse the songs alongside submersively deep bass, snare hits, basic hi-hat patterns, and offbeat keyboard accents. Ernestus and von Oswald restrainedly use minimalistic arrangements which thereby make the subtlest enhancements (like Paul St. Hilaire's guitar on “Jah Rule” and the saxophones on “Mash Down Babylon”) assume greater significance. “King In My Empire” begins things on a stunningly high note with Cornel Campbell's gorgeous, often multi-tracked vocals paired with a majestic backing track. “Queen In My Empire” follows, essentially a variation of the first song with its faster arrangement offset by Jennifer Lara's laconic delivery. At times, the vocals resonate through waves of echo and delay; the ominous “We Been,” for example, features Shalom's vocal lines not merely doubled but tripled, even quadrupled, while the multiple layers of Love Joy's sublime vocals form a veritable chorus on “Best Friend.” Certainly the seven singers possess different styles and timbres yet the unifying instrumental conception, so consistently maintained throughout, tends to underemphasize those differences.
The two Rhythm & Sound recordings fascinatingly testify to a stunning convergence of Berlin electronica and Jamaican reggae which comes off sounding completely natural. The lyrical content covers familiar reggae territory (with repeated mentions of Jah, suffering, prophecy, and Babylon) and consequently firmly anchors the sound, distracting the listener's attention away from the seductively subtle instrumental touches. While the compelling presence of its vocalists makes Rhythm & Sound w/the artists understandably register as the more distinctive of the two releases, Rhythm & Sound the versions is strong too. Naturally the focus shifts to the production and engenders a greater appreciation thereof. With the vocals removed, the literal connection to reggae recedes and the Berlin electronic dimension moves to the forefront, tension thereby generated by the tracks subsisting in a suspended interzone between the two. One's attention fixates more clearly upon the blurred, aquatic density of the sound and its rippling, atmospheric depths, and suddenly the distance separating Rhythm & Sound the versions from Chain Reaction releases like Porter Ricks' Biokinetics and Fluxion's Vibrant Forms II begins to seem small indeed. How strange and wonderful it is that in 2003 two Berlin producers should prove so adept at breathing such incredible new life into a decades-old style whose roots are so deeply embedded in Jamaican culture.